books,  communication,  culture,  God,  meaning of life,  the ethical life

A book about the Harry Potter books, and the many questions they invoke.

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My current light-reading is the book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menance behind the Magick by Richard Abanes. In some ways it is a very weird book for me to read because I do not share the author’s conservative Christian religious beliefs. Why then should I concern myself with the criticisms he has of Harry Potter based on those religious beliefs? I am drawn to the book for the chance to see a little window into the ideas of others. How does his understanding of the Bible effect his understanding of Harry Potter? How does his understanding of Harry Potter help me understand my own views of the world?

Much of the book ends up being unintentionally humorous for its poor arguments. Just the introduction provides fuel for merriment. It starts with hinting ever so subtly that the book’s success must be due to some evil force. (A Scholastics representative is quoted as saying “It would be easy to attribute Harry Potter’s success to some form of magical intervention.”) The retail industry has “yet to recover” from the “book-buying frenzy” that the Potter books caused. (Selling lots of books is something the retail industry has to recover from? I thought that was the goal of retail.) It then invokes the ongoing issue of parents right  by talking of how parents are worried about how schools are exposing children to this world of magic. An incredible percentage of his references are to webpages and he brings in some truely bizzare red herrings, like the story of one teenager who got involved in playing Dungeons and Dragons before eventually becoming a murderer. Yet behind its abundant logical fallacies and insinuations there are a couple of interesting ideas within the book.

The author, Richard Abanes, makes a huge deal out of J.K.Rowling’s literary knowledge. Aspects that I delight in, such as the naming of the divination teacher after the title of ancient Greek and Roman seers, are portrayed as being a problem. The book suggests that knowledge implies intimacy, approval or participation. That J.K.Rowling knows so much about the history of magic (of alchemy, astronomy, etc) is proof that she must believe in them and practice them. I think cultural literacy is a great thing. I don’t think its wrong to fill a story with references to such things as Sirus (the dog-star) or obscure methods of divination. After reading book two of the series we borrowed a book from the library about Basilisks. Of course the book it isn’t really about basilisks, because basilisks don’t exist, it is about the literary tradition of basilisks.
Richard Abanes objects to the blurring of fiction and reality. The Harry Potter world, after all, is supposed to take place here in the same geographical areas we know of. Then too, Nicholas Flamel, inventor of the philosopher’s stone was a historic (or quasi-historic) person. Mr. Abanes thinks that the blurring will confuse people. I think of the number of people who dream of being Jedi and I think, it doesn’t matter if  a story is set in London or in a galaxy far, far away. Some people will be confused no matter what and others will not. (It is also interesting to note that Tolkien, whom Mr. Abanes praises for placing his fantasy in Middle Earth and not blending it with the real world, wrote a less well known fantasy story called Farmer Giles of Ham, that is set in Britian.)

Here’s the big catch. I think if people are confused by the book, it is relatively harmless.  I think that it is fine if a child tries waving a wand and saying “wingardium leviosa” to get things to fly, and I’m sure they’ll realize it doesn’t work. Most importantly, I don’t believe that trying to do so in any way jeopardizes a child’s soul. Mr. Abanes doesn’t believe it is harmless, and I get the sense it is because he believes that on some level magic exists. It is evil and forbidden by God but still real enough that attempting it causes some serious risk.

I think what I’m trying to catch a glimpse of, in reading Mr. Abanes book, is of what world it is he inhabits. How does he see the world? Not that I have interest in him as an individual, but as a representative of a larger group of Americans. How do they see the world? Magic is so completely non-existent in my world that when I read a quote of J.K.Rowling saying a bit of magic exists within each of us, I assume she’s talking about the magic of love, friendship, bravely and the beauty in life. It doesn’t cross my mind that she could possibly be suggesting we could all become wizards.

When we read the Harry Potter stories, my four year old asked, does magic exist? We asked, as we always do, what he thinks. He said he thinks some magic exists because Santa Claus is magic, but that Harry Potter magic doesn’t. My seven year old giggled and barely resisted breaking to his brother the news about Santa.

Yet even as I write this I realize I do worry sometimes that people are drawn in by tales of magic. I think of Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, and the idea that girls in particular are drawn to magic since the idea of magic allows them to be both passive and powerful at the same time. Magic is the lure of being able to make changes without doing the changes, and the popularity of books such as The Secret, must suggest people want that. I worry about it not in the endangering of souls but in the encouraging of passivity and blame. A person who believes they they have the magical powers to create the world they want will have to blame him or herself for the conditions of his or her life, and will blame others for the conditions of their lives. There is a danger in magical thinking, in the belief that one has abilities beyond what one does.

Except that danger of magical thinking is nowhere within the Harry Potter books at all. Harry Potter books magic is a useful tool but incredibly limited. Voldermort uses the death spell in the same way someone could use a gun. No one, not even Dumbledore, has a magic ability to wave a wand and make everything alright. The limits of the magic make people have to be very active and to accept that they can’t control everything.

Mr. Abanes does bring out clearly the problem of what behaviours the book promotes. The characters lie, steal, cheat, gamble, drink and break rules regularly and it seems weird acknowledging that because the characters include such nice people. What does that mean? I suppose it means I’m already pretty corrupt that I can read over and accept such behaviour without being disturbed by it. Or maybe I’m realistic and realize that everyone does things wrong but that we tend to overlook the faults in those we care about.

Do I accept the idea that the ends justify the means? Do I accept the idea that it is okay to break rules for a good reason? Or to lie? I believe it is important not to lie because lying can make a person untrustworthy and that creates a whole collection of problems. It is awful to not know if you can trust your someone or not, or to be not trusted by someone you need to trust you. In the story though, that trust is regularly strained. Is there anything Harry Potter could have done, that would have won him Snape’s trust? Up until the very end, is there anything Snape could do that Harry Potter would trust him? What does it mean for Harry to trust Dumbledore? Trust is a bigger more serious issue than whether one lies about why one is caught out at night.

Yet… yet I still don’t like the idea of children lying. The little lying about sneaking out of bed matters a great deal, if one is a parent. I think though about something I have read before, suggesting that those who lie are those for whom the truth would hurt too much. Why is Harry constantly in situations where he feels the need to lie? Is Hogwarts oppressive? Is Harry morally flawed or is he human?

Mr. Abanes writes:

The war in Rowling’s novels is a conflict between a horrific evil (Voldemort and his Death Eaters) and a lesser evil (Harry and the “good” characters) that only appears virtuous because it is so much less offensive and frightening than the greater evil.

While I can understand questions about whether Harry’s lying and breaking rules is a good example for children or not, I think the term “evil” is sorely misapplied here. We lose perspective if we apply the same words to incredibly different things. Things can be wrong without being evil, right?

Mr. Abanes continues:

Biblically speaking, Harry and all the other “good” characters are simply using one set of sinful behaviors to defeat another set of sinful behaviors. Drawing concepts of morality from either side is problematic, especially for children. Indeed, the Harry Potter series is not morally compatible with Christianity, which stands in direct opposition to using evil actions to conquer evil. Christians are instructed to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). (137)

This is the point where I wonder if Mr. Abanes is a pacifist. Does he argue against all wars? Does he work to promote getting rid of the death penalty? Does he believe that peaceful loving solutions are possible to every problem? Does he believe that right will always prevail?

That question of whether love will always overcome evil is a big issue to me. I remember as a child believing that if I could just be loving enough the other children would stop being mean to me. In believing that I internalized responsibility for their nastiness. I thought it was my fault, because I wasn’t good enough. I like the ambiguity in the Harry Potter series because I don’t believe that things always work out if you are nice enough. Sometimes there are people we just don’t like. Sometimes there are people who just don’t like us. Sometimes we end up having to do things we wish we didn’t have to.

I wonder how the Harry Potter stories would be different if Ms. Rowling had created a world in which Harry had no need to lie or sneak out at night. There are adventure stories where children solve mysteries without lying or breaking so many rules, yet those stories seem to inevitably take place in a world with so many fewer rules. I think part of the magic in the Harry Potter stories is the ambiguity and the difficulties. It is a story about growing up, and growing up means learning how to deal with the times when one’s judgement comes in conflict with that of those around you.

One of the most disturbing parts in Mr. Abanes’ book is when he questions whether or not public school teachers are qualified to discuss the ethical-moral problems of the Harry Potter series, saying “What slant will a Buddhist teacher bring to the discussion? How about a Muslim? An athiest? A New Ager? A Scientologist?” (138) Later he bemoans that “today’s spiritually starved seekers are searching for spiritual relief through a variety of nontraditional groups, doctrines and rituals: Trascendental Meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, astral travel, numerous meditative arts, neopaganism, witchcraft, Satanism and occultism. All of these have become an established part of the American religious scene.” (207) The level of intolerance that Mr. Abanes is promoting is much scarier, I think, than any concerns that Harry Potter will encourage children to break curfew.

As I read the book I shared bits of it with my husband and my seven year old son. My seven year old was particularly disturbed by the book because he loves Harry Potter and he didn’t like the idea that this book would persuade other parents to not let their children read the stories. He wanted us to destroy the book instead of returning it to the library so it wouldn’t persuade others, until I explained to him that destroying the book would result in me having to purchase another copy of it thus rewarding the author with more money. I also explained to him that Harry Potter’s books are incredibly popular and this book hasn’t really made much of a mark in the world.

There is an irony here. My son saw this book as an obstacle to others enjoying the Harry Potter books, and this author sees the Harry Potter books as an obstacle to others enjoying a relationship with God. In both cases someone has something they love and want to share with others. In the book Mr. Abanes laments that the wizarding adventures are forced upon children in schools, but he councils parents that it might be okay to let their child listen to the story during class time if it will provide them with an opportunity to share their religious beliefs with their fellow-students. To many who see the Potter books as harmless, the idea of children sharing their religious beliefs in the playground as not harmless.

Harry’s popularity has made him a cultural phenomena, and as such he can bring people together. Children in the park can reference to his story with a decent chance that other children know about it. His story can be a shared experience. Yet Harry Potter can also be used to illustrate the division within society.

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    • christyk

      He doesn’t address the allegorical aspects at all. Probably part of it is that the book was written before the fifth book was published. So he makes a number of errors, saying that Harry might save people he cares about but he would never help those who are not his friends (an inaccurate prediction, given that Harry eventually does help Draco).

      But he doesn’t attempt to treat any part of the story as an allegory. He takes things very literally, basically trying to draw a connection between J.K.Rowling and the modern neopagan movement. And he attempts to connect specific aspects of Harry Potter to thinks forbidden in the Bible – like talking to ghosts, predicting the future, etc.

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